Sunday, May 28, 2017

Amid Dashed Expectations: Acts 1:6-14 - Seventh Sunday of Easter

6When [the apostles] had come together, they asked [Jesus], “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.

My Aching Soul by Rich.  Creative commons image on flickr
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh recently announced a sweeping plan of restructuring that will create 49 parish “groupings,” and necessitate the closure of dozens of buildings throughout the Pittsburgh Area.

In a section of the Allegheny Valley stretching from Springdale to Cabot, nine parishes will be consolidated into three. 

The Diocese is calling their effort On Mission for the Church Alive, but one could easily call it “In Mourning for the Church Dying…”

I don’t think you can truly understand the pain of a church closure until you go through it.  Generations of families will have been baptized, confirmed, married, buried from that building.  Christians having given selflessly of time and talent to support the ministry.  The loss to that community of their presence as an assembled body.  The building left to rot away abandoned or be bulldozed to make way for a Starbucks. 

This highlights what is one of the greatest challenges of being a Christian: the problem of dashed expectations.

Jesus’ disciples are once again facing this situation in today’s first reading.  Forty days ago, they’d endured the spiritual and emotional trauma of Jesus’ crucifixion—and the whirlwind drama of his resurrection.  Their hopes that had been dashed by his death have now been revived and intensified by his being raised.  Since the religious leaders and Roman authorities failed in their attempt to get rid of Jesus for good, the disciples now have their sights set on Israel’s highest hope—that Jesus conquer the Romans, reclaim the Temple, and take the Davidic throne as ruler of a reunified Israel. 

But then, Jesus tells them “that’s not your business to know…”  Then, Jesus is carried off into heaven by a cloud. 

Before he goes, he tells them, “you will be my witnesses in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  I can’t imagine they took this as good news.  Not only have their highest hopes been dashed, they are sent on a mission that is as daunting as it is frightening.  Jesus will not be there in body as he had been.

This is almost like Good Friday all over again.  And—chances are, you know how they feel.

As a Christian, in what ways have your expectations been dashed?

Which of your most fervent prayers have not been answered?

Which of your dreams have turned into nightmares?

Is being a Christian everything it’s cracked up to be?

Has your belonging to this church been a disappointment?

Have you come hungry and left empty?

Have you gotten closer to Jesus—or more confused and discouraged?

We work so hard at everything we do to meet people’s needs and share Jesus’ love—so why all the empty pews? Why have people stopped coming?

Christians make two big mistakes when their expectations are dashed.  The first—is they pretend it’s not happening.  They put on a happy face and try and shove their feelings down inside of them.  It’s the classic Pollyanna mindset optimism that ignores reality.  But you can’t do that forever—which leads to the second mistake Christians make: they give up.  When there’s questions without answers; disappointments without resolutions; they’re done.  It’s as if it’s a shameful thing to be disappointed in God—and that God will be angry with you!

But it’s not a sin to be disappointed with God.  It’s what you do with the disappointment that counts.

So what if you and I spoke more opening about our dashed expectations—because this is something we all have in common!  What if we thought of our church as a spiritual support group—and talk more openly about our struggles and frustrations?  As we look to the future of this congregation, can we grieve for the people we’ve lost and the changes to our world that have let us all to the situation we’re in?  Can we be courageous enough to name the ways this church (which isn’t perfect) has disappointed us?

This is terribly hard to do—but when the apostles are standing there stunned following the ascension of Jesus, two angels come to comfort them with God’s promises.  Later, they come together with the female disciples and Jesus’ own family to pray.  What happens is that this ending and this disappointment gives way to a new beginning—and ultimately, the birth of the Church—and the new embodiment of the presence of Christ in people and in bread and wine.  Those apostles are going to take the presence of Christ to the ends of the earth, just as Jesus promised.

Jesus brings a transformative grace into your dashed expectations.  He is always making things new.  Resurrection is our full-time job!  So as we identify our disappointments, grieve our losses, confront our failures, we do so trusting that these will not define who we are or the future God has in store. 

Jesus will still be alive, no matter what happens.  His church will always exist, even if all the church buildings in this town close their doors.  In Christ, every ending is a new beginning. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Blessed Restlessness: Acts 17:22-34 - Sixth Sunday after Easter

22Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
 ‘For we too are his offspring.’
 ‘For we too are his offspring.’29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (NRSV)
FS_evening reflection by Virginia State Parks.  Creative commons image on flickr

I haven’t forgotten the night I quit my high school youth group.

I hadn’t been there for a while because the high school musical season had just ended, where I played in the pit orchestra.  One of my peers asked me where I’d been, and I told her.  Then she proceeded to say that I must care more about the band than I do about Jesus.  In that second, I was struck with guilt and anger—and given the unpleasantness of both, I decided I was done with youth group.  And I remained super-involved in music through high school and right up into college.  You could say I was “religious” about it. 

And I thought about that not too long ago when I had a conversation with a man who hadn’t been to church in decades, who said, “I practice my religion in a fishing boat.”  It would be very easy to condemn him for that—wrongfully, might I add…

Just consider the apostle Paul’s missionary journey in Athens.  There, Paul is preaching in a place called the Areopagus, where philosophers and intellectuals would gather to debate truth and wisdom.  It was the hub of Greek thought and culture.  Paul was taken there by those who heard his teachings about Jesus and resurrection—who wanted to know more.

At this point, Paul had seen idols everywhere in the city.  He also sees an altar that had been dedicated “to an unknown god.”  But notice how Paul doesn’t rebuke or condemn these people.  He doesn’t warn them to clean up their act and pray to God that they won’t go to hell for all their idols.  Instead, he says, “I see how religious you are in every way…”

He recognizes that they are spiritually curious—and hungry—for a divine presence they had not yet found.  Paul’s message was that Jesus was right there—ready to be known and loved. 

Personally, I’m encouraged by this story, and here’s why: Our society has pushed God to the margins.  There are so many options to satisfy your deepest longings.  You have everything from professional sports to little league; music to making money; more places to go shopping than any other nation in the developed world; restaurants to satisfy every taste; technologies to socialize and be entertained; and the 24-hour cable news cycle to constantly be in the know. 

You can tune in to talk shows like Oprah and Dr. Oz that provide a continuous flow of new ideas and methods to be healthy and happy.  Churches even promote themselves the solution to your every problems.

Sadly, some will seek to satisfy their longings in drugs, alcohol, and other pursuits that are toxic to human health and relationships. 

Conventional wisdom would suggest that these are all idols and false gods—and yes, they can be.  But in a more definite sense, these are signs that spiritual hunger is real. 

In every one of you, there’s an emptiness, a restlessness, an anxiousness that won’t go away.  But Jesus is present in those longings—ready to be known and loved.  The challenge, however, is in seeking him…

Paul is right to say that sometimes you must “grope” for God.  Unfortunately, that word has come to mean inappropriately touching someone else; but it also can mean struggling to find.  We all do that.  It’s just part of the Christian experience.  You’re going to seek God through certain means and certain experiences, and come up empty.  But not always.

So when you get that urge to do something—or buy something—recognize it for what it is: spiritual hunger.  Take it to the Lord in prayer. 

God may take you fishing—and make it a time of listening and praying.  Perhaps, instead of going shopping, you’ll give something away.  If you need to rest, pray for God to give it to you.  If you’re turning to things that are potentially harmful to your health and relationships, know that Jesus wants to free you from the burdens dragging you down and refresh your soul in ways nothing else can do.  If you’re ready to say “I’m done” being a Christian, remember that Jesus is never done with you!

You come to church to encounter Jesus in Word, Sacrament, and each other.  But Jesus doesn’t just feed spiritual hunger on Sundays—but also during the week, out there in the world, living life. 

Already, you know that Jesus is present in people’s grief.  So we have GriefShare.  You know that Jesus cares about people in need.  So we open the clothing closet.  You have questions about God and the Bible—so we have Bible study.

If we believe things are taking people away from church, how can we meet others in those things and see them as opportunities for evangelism?  In Christ, fishing, athletics, music, outdoor recreation—and practically anything else can be transformed into a ministry!  Passions and struggles are perfect grounds for Christian discipleship!

When you’re restless, anxious, and exhausted—know that the voice of Jesus is calling you.  Jesus wants to be the one who will satisfy your deepest longings with his forgiveness and his love.